Korean-Americans talk about intergenerational relationships, differences

by Marni Ginther

Over Memorial Day weekend, many remembered the men and women serving in Iraq. But a Minneapolis art exhibit has been paying tribute to stories of the Korean War for the past several months.

“I never realized, growing up, how much being Korean is affected by the Korean War,” Asian-American studies and psychology professor Richard Lee said in a keynote address Thursday night.

Lee’s address opened a forum called “Mom, Dad, Hear Our Voices,” held at the Korean Service Center on Cedar Avenue. It was one of a series of community outreach events sponsored by “Still Present Pasts,” a national art exhibit inspired by stories of the Korean War. The exhibit arrived April 14 at Intermedia Arts on Lyndale Avenue.

“Still Present Pasts” began at Boston College as a project to collect oral histories from Korean-Americans who lived through the war. It grew into a national, multimedia art exhibit featuring audio, visual and performance art inspired by those stories.

Lee helped bring the exhibit to Minnesota, and the University’s Institute for Advanced Study sponsored it.

Thursday’s forum was, like all the exhibit’s community outreach events, designed to promote dialogue within the Twin Cities’ Korean-American community.

The topic was intergenerational relationships between immigrant parents and their second-generation children. April’s Virginia Tech shooting, in which the gunman was Korean-American, came up several times.

“The Virginia Tech incident really motivated us to have this kind of open forum,” said Yoonju Park, executive director of the Korean Service Center and member of the “Still Present Pasts” steering committee. “It shouldn’t be just buried as a tragic event; we should learn from it.”

Cultural differences and a lack of understanding between immigrant parents and their American-born children put stress on their relationships, said Lee. To relieve that stress, he said, it’s important to talk about the roots of those differences, one of which is the Korean War.

“My parents didn’t share (their experiences from the war),” he said. “We grew up without any understanding or appreciation of what they went through.”

Growing up in an era when they didn’t have personal freedom and when education was one of the only ways of achieving that freedom, Korean-American parents tend to be very strict about education, Lee said.

A panel of Korean-American teens also spoke at the event and said they feel their parents sometimes have unrealistic expectations.

“Sometimes it’s like if you’re not going to an Ivy League school, then it’s not good enough,” said Roy Son, 18. “But I’m not going to Harvard; I’m going to the ‘U.’ “

After attending the “Still Present Pasts” exhibit, Park said she realized how much her war experiences shaped her parenting.

“Before, I thought if my kids were quiet at home and did well in school, then everything was OK,” she said. “But I neglected to see their inside – how they feel, what they like.”

The center has tried to host parenting workshops in the past, Park said, but there haven’t been enough participants. She hopes the center will be able to host more events similar to Thursday’s because of the need for communication between immigrant parents and their children, she said.

“More parents should come to listen, they need to know what their kids are thinking about,” said Buhyun Nam, mother of one of the teen panelists. “Problems only get bigger and bigger as kids grow up and grow away from their parents. We need to talk about these things now.”

“Still Present Pasts” is also sponsoring an exhibit by Korean-American adoptees living in Minnesota.

It will run June 3-7 at the Weisman Art Museum.